A while ago I was asked to write something for International Women’s day for the Anglican Communion blog and so I shared the surprising encouragement I received from that tricky Proverbs 31 passage…
Today, for many people across the globe, the word “woman” will be significant. It’s International Women’s day, the UN Commission of the Status of Women is about to start in New York and the Diocese of London is today celebrating the confirmation of its new Bishop, who is in fact – for the first time – a woman. The existence of the first two events, and the noteworthiness of the third, tell us that there is work to be done about how the world, the church and individuals think about and interact with what it means to be a woman.
It’s old news now to point out that the media, cosmetic industry, Disney and the majority of all marketing campaigns have contributed to the idea that being successful at being a Woman (at least in the West) means to be attractive, to be desired by men, to be delicate. Unfortunately a lot of Christian culture can often add to this list: be a wife, be attracted to children’s ministry, be adept at making bunting (or insert other domestic-craft item here). Both lists could go on and I haven’t met a woman inside or outside of the church who doesn’t in some way feel like she has fallen short of this ideal of success, including myself.
During a moment when I was feeling this shortcoming more keenly than usual, I decided to turn to the Bible (perhaps not the place a lot of people would think an unmarried, childless feminist would turn to in this particular hour of need). Against my better judgement, I succumbed to the little voice inside me and turned to Proverbs chapter 31 and the famous “Ode to a capable wife” (vs 10-31). This particular chapter tends to get women sighing and eye-rolling: “How can we ever be like this woman?! She’s up before dawn, she makes clothes all day, looks after the kids and is HAPPY about it all!” This mythical woman has consistently and incorrectly been use as a measuring stick to emotionally beat women with. But, to my surprise, as I read through the 21 verses I found that the ideal of this woman is far more liberating than the ones we get given today:
- She is a woman of good character (v 11, 12, 25, 27, 28)
- She excels as a business woman (v 13, 16, 18, 19, 24)
- She has a social conscience (v 20)
- She is a provider for her family (v 15, 21)
- She is looked to for wisdom (v26)
- She fears the Lord (v 30)
- She is strong (v 17)
- She is a leader (v 15, 26)
This woman is no wallflower or trophy wife. The woman described is strong, independent, skilled and good company. She is described as “more precious than jewels” (v 10) and “surpassing excellence” (v 29) and none of that is to do with her looks, her delicate nature, her submissiveness or whatever else you find emulated on the front cover of most women’s magazines or Christian books like – dare I say it – ‘Captivating’.
For me, the message of this passage isn’t that I have to stop conforming to one brand of “woman” and conform to this one instead. Nor is it that I have a different, longer list of ideals to live up to. Rather, this passage tells me that it is “more precious than jewels” to be who God has created and calls me to be, regardless of whether it fits the culture-shaped mould for my gender. It tells me that some stereotypically “male” qualities belong to me too in a way that doesn’t diminish my femininity. I can (if created and called to it) be strong, excel in my career and lead, confident that this contributes to my womanhood. I can of course make bunting without letting the feminist side down if that is what I feel drawn to doing with my time.
So let’s celebrate, emulate, protect and nurture the strength we see in the Women around us. Let’s partner with God in calling out of women the people they have created to be. Let’s break the moulds we weren’t designed to fit.